Will Chileans, and Miami expats, turn Pinochet's outpost into a progressive stronghold?
Latin America's most prosperous country was long considered one of its most conservative. But is Chile now becoming one of the region's most progressive?
Last month left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric became the youngest person ever to be elected president of Chile. He’s 35 — and beat far right-wing candidate José Antonio Kast, who’s 20 years older, in a landslide.
Boric’s youth, and his liberal politics, represent something larger happening in Chile. Latin America's most prosperous country was long considered one of its most conservative, but now it seems headed toward becoming one of the region's most progressive — with some help from expats in places like South Florida.
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“Finally, Chile woke up — we need to take Chile into the 21st century," said José Ignacio Valenzuela, known as “Chascas," an acclaimed Chilean screenwriter and author of young adult books, including his best-selling “Malamor” trilogy. Valenzuela lives here in Palmetto Bay with his husband and their 2-year-old daughter.
Valenzuela is an expat, but he played a big lobbying role in the Chilean Congress’ legalization of gay marriage last month. He points out that under previous Chilean law, for example, as a gay father he couldn’t visit Chile with his daughter – because he wouldn't be able to leave Chile with her.
“Because the Chilean Constitution didn’t recognize two fathers, they would [require] permission from [a] mother to take a child out of the country," Valenzuela told me. "That’s a huge problem for LGBTQ families.
"So I decided to get loud.”
Valenzuela, creator of the hit Netflix series "Quién Mató a Sara?" (Who Killed Sara?), waged a fervent campaign in Chilean media that helped push gay marriage over the top.
Chileans have held street protests in recent years demanding similar social reforms. Those have led to a decisive break with the era of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal, right-wing military dictatorship. It ruled Chile from from 1973 to 1990 — but even with more liberal leaders like former President Michelle Bachelet governing since then, Valenzuela says it’s taken the country three decades to discard Pinochet’s reactionary legacy.
“Pinochet left us with a very scary constitution," said Valenzuela, "and we finally are going to get rid of that constitution.”
Chileans did recently vote to write a new constitution. Critics of the Pinochet-era constitution say it has greatly favored the interests of a rich, powerful elite. Supporters of the new charter say it will be more democratic (as well as greener, mandating more sustainable use of Chile's prodigious natural resources).
The convention drafting it is also more diverse: it includes ethnic minorities, indigenous people and an equal number of men and women. It will, in fact, address women’s issues such as abortion rights – more possible now since Chile’s once omnipotent Roman Catholic Church has lost its clout due to clerical sexual abuse scandals.
“Today I can say, ‘Let’s talk about abortion,'" said Chilean expat Carolina Avaria Quilhot. "Fifteen years ago it was, ‘Oh my God, why d’you want to talk about that?'"
Chileans used to be too insular and isolated, but today we're more open-minded. I come from a super-conservative background, but I like the new Chile that is coming.
Avaria, who spoke to me from Viña del Mar, Chile, lives in Pinecrest. She teaches history and hosts programs from Miami for Chilean broadcast outlets like Patagonia Radio TV.
But she's quick to point out she’s not a liberal. She was raised in Chile in what she calls a “super conservative” family; she did not support Boric, and she still opposes more broadly legalized abortion (though she backs Chile's 2017 reform to allow abortion in cases such as rape).
“Abortion for me is still —" she gasps — "you know? Maybe it’s going to take me more time, but for me it’s hard dealing with it.”
Still, Avaria’s glad it's no longer a taboo subject. She feels that’s good for women’s progress in Chile, which she does support. She strongly embraces the example of her aunt, Wanda Quilhot, who is one of the first women to do scientific research in Antarctica.
“She was absolutely avant-garde," Avaria said. "If you take a book of Chilean history, you don’t have many women there. But now we are more able to express ourselves, to believe in ourselves.”
Avaria credits 21st-century phenomena like globalization for more broadly opening Chile — once considered an isolated outpost in South America — to the outside world.
“We are more open-minded today," she said. "I like this new Chile that is coming.”
In Miami, Chilean expats like Juan Nuñez say it’s heartening to hear Chilean conservatives like Avaria speak that way. Nuñez and his more politically liberal family left Chile in the 1970s, when he was a student, to escape the Pinochet dictatorship.
“I’m seeing a much more moderate, a more civilized right emerging in Chile,” Nuñez told me.
Today Nuñez owns a successful exterminating company in Miami with his brother — and hopes the economic inequality Chile has wrestled with for the past half century will finally be fixed.
"What good is to be called Latin America's most developed country when so many people get left out of that development?" he said.
But, not surprisingly, Chile’s new liberal wave is also causing anxiety in many circles. As it looked likelier last year that the leftist millennial Boric would win the presidency, at least two Chilean law firms opened offices in Miami — largely to help wealthy, more conservative Chileans, and their assets, move here to South Florida.